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Ko Ko Ri

By Ron Copeland 

 We are a people of memory. The Torah commands us to remember our history. We have much to remember, so much that is sad, and so much that is life-affirming. Memory for us does not exclude others. Helen Burke, not of our faith, has grown to embrace and to share our memories, to make them her own, and then to share them back with her breath of vision. She is a catalyst for our memory of the past and an inspiration for the future. It is a joy and an honor to reflect that Helen Burke and her artwork have found a home.

Dr. Alfred Gottschalk


 Hebrew Union College 

Jewish Institute of 


In 1967, Rabbi Joseph Glaser, director of the Northern California and the Pacific Northwest Councils of UAHC and Camp Swig, saw Helen's work at an exhibit honoring the 10th anniversary of San Francisco's Temple Emanu – Museum. He invited Helen to join the camp's two-week art faculty for senior high students during a two-week art festival. The camp had an excellent reputation for its art programming, and Helen was eager to participate.

 Asked to teach for two weeks, she stayed for twenty years.

 Wanting campers to learn about the Holocaust through the arts, Rabbi Glaser initially suggested Helen and the campers build a small Holocaust memorial with no plan or funds for a specific memorial building, but with the sensitivity and knowledge gained from time living with Holocaust survivors in Israel. Helen began work 5on what was to become the memorial's centerpiece: its ark.

 Over fifteen years, about 1,00 campers contributed to the project, working either in mosaic or welded metal. The children first learned the craft of welding by designing a small ritual object they could take home with them. Campers then welded reliefs that Hellen would use on the ark segments of the Jewish holiday cycle for the sides: images of California redwoods to adorn the front or birds and pomegranates to top the ark.

 As a little girl, Helen Burke was discouraged from pursuing art as a hobby, not a profession. Back then, becoming an artist for a girl was not considered a worthwhile pastime for young ladies, so she had an honorable career as a teacher; it is remarkable that only after she retired was the pursuit of learning to be an artist thought of. Burke was free to go to New York and, in Manhattan, attend a school of the arts focusing on painting.

 Burke soon discovered, however, that she was a "terrible painter" and was drawn instead to sculpture studios. There, experiments with subject matter and often outrageous materials such as welded scrap metal, plaster, and polyester helped shatter her previous conceptions of sculpture as pompous bronze memorials in parks. She learned to work in welded metal, one of the preferred techniques of Abstract Expressionist sculptors. Rather than building totally from abstract forms, however, Burke remained a figurative sculptor, often referring to the wonders in nature as a theme. In this, her work combined the significant currents of Bay Area art in the 50s and 60s.

 While still a student, Burke participated in several juried group exhibitions and, for two years, in the Eric Locke Galleries Outdoor Sculpture exhibit, which the San Francisco Chronicle art critic Hershel Chipp considered a significant showcase for emerging talent. Following her graduation in 1961, she spent a year in New York, tasting the center of the modern art world. But Burke realized that she was emotionally in a different place than her younger artist friends who had moved to New York and that the East Coast's hectic pace and fierce competition were not for her.

 "I had a different perspective. I wanted my work to be close to people. While I respect my friends -they're great to me -I felt I didn't want a narrow world for myself. I thought their world was narrow."

 Helen and the campers also fashioned two portable Torah arks. The first, a rotund metal ark adorned with symbols of Jewish holidays, was built to house a Torah rescued from the Holocaust. Helen named the second ark "Little Ambassador" because of the traditional regal associations of the Torah. 

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